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Five loaves and two fish


 

MBA alumnus Alan Gilbertson has applied more than 15 years of experience with Orbis to help FoodBank SA become a prime example of how non-profit organisations can use business thinking to drive social change.

Through the simple idea of gathering excess food and donations from various sources, FoodBank SA is providing food to over 1,700 community based organisations which support almost 400 000 South Africans, and is growing. Board member and former managing director, Alan Gilbertson, says that the organisation has achieved this primarily by taking a business-minded approach to the challenges.

“There are 11 million people who are food insecure in South Africa. Yet we can grow enough food to feed the whole population – it’s just not in the right places or the right hands. So the trick is to link a world of waste to a world of want,” Gilbertson says.

Gilbertson brings impressive business credentials to the organisation. Recruited fresh out of an MBA at the GSB in the mid 1980s by Allan Gray, he spent 15 years helping to lay the foundations for Orbis in Bermuda to become the impressive entity it is today.

At his MBA graduation, Gilbertson wasn’t entirely sure which path he wanted to follow. “But I knew I wanted to change the world with my shiny new MBA,” he says.

“Allan Gray regularly canvassed the GSB for promising candidates, and he liked my accounting and MBA qualifications. He initially wanted me to join his hugely successful local investment management business – but I was much more intrigued by the challenge of helping him to grow his fledgling international money management firm,” says Gilbertson.

An important draw card for Gilbertson was the fact that Gray had expressed an interest in forming an entrepreneurial trust, to create employment opportunities for the disadvantaged – long before corporate social enterprises and sustainable leadership were in vogue, and before the world realised businesses need to look at more than just who could make the most profit. 

“I helped him establish a company in Hong Kong. I moved there, and became the managing director. That company initially managed individual client portfolios, but soon grew so big that it made sense to transform it to managing mutual funds instead. In early 1989 we researched where it would make sense to domicile this evolved business – and Bermuda emerged as the choice.”

At the same time the organisation was rebranded into Orbis. Today the Orbis Group has over US$37 billion of assets under management – although Gilbertson is quick to point out that most of this was accumulated after his retirement – and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, established as an education and development catalyst to assist a generation of high growth entrepreneurial change agents to bring about job creation in southern Africa, is backed by an endowment trust capitalised with over one billion dollars.

After 15 years of nurturing the growth of Orbis, it was time for Gilbertson to move on. He and his wife Carol bought a holiday home in Cape Town, while still permanently stationed in Bermuda. “At this stage of our lives we wanted to acknowledge our good luck by writing a cheque and supporting society. It made sense to do so in South Africa rather than in relatively affluent Bermuda. We wanted to get as much bang for our buck as we could, and through my research and a tiny article in the Cape Argus I came across Feedback Food Redistribution.” 

At the time Feedback was a fledgling non-profit consisting entirely of one Bianca du Plessis, an entrepreneur who had persuaded a German film company, Neue Sentimental, to sponsor the purchase of a bakkie. Du Plessis used it to pick up excess food from film sets and a couple of restaurants, and then drive it into the townships.

“We loved the fact that finding food for people was simple, green and cost effective – the food was free and all we needed to fund was the transport logistics. We’d found our cause, and decided to buy a truck for Feedback,” says Gilbertson.

As the organisation grew, the Gilbertsons soon purchased another truck, but the increasing logistics became a headache for Du Plessis, who realised that Feedback was scalable, and wanted it to reach its full potential, but didn’t enjoy managing a growing number of people. “So armed with my arrogance and know-how from the GSB MBA we sat down and helped create a strategic plan,” says Gilbertson.

Dean Hand was recruited as managing director and with a lot of hard work and “some luck”, by 2008 the Feedback project was distributing over 10 million meals a year and operating in four South African cities with a fleet of 24 trucks. The base programme for Feedback, which is still the base programme for FoodBank today, is a food rescue programme. “This means that the food is donated – we get thousands of tonnes a year of free food, most of which would otherwise go to landfills. The cost to us is the cost of logistics – getting food from donor to beneficiary,” he says.

“From a business perspective, feeding people offers wonderful leverage because it addresses so many issues, cost effectively,” Gilbertson says. “Children are more likely to go to school if there’s a meal there for them. Providing solutions to hunger also reduces the crime rate, as people don’t need to steal to survive; providing nutritional food also addresses health concerns.”

Further funding was the next issue they had to approach. Gilbertson and the Feedback team knew that the project’s potential for growth was immense. How to fully realise that was another matter. While they were grappling with this challenge, an opportunity came in the form of the Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), based in Chicago USA. By 2008 the GFN was working extensively in SA to create enthusiasm for food banking, an approach to hunger relief successfully adopted by dozens of countries.

The GFN and a slate of influential South Africans leaders it had recruited invited Feedback to transform itself to provide the basis for a new national food banking network for South Africa. In early 2009 Gilbertson agreed to step in as voluntary managing director to lead this transformation due to Hand’s resignation for family reasons.

“Bob Forney, the leader of the GFN had a saying – ‘feeding people isn’t a competitive sport’ – and there’s a lot to that”, says Gilbertson. With this in mind, Feedback merged with other hunger relief entities in several cities, and FoodBank SA was born in 2009. The new network engaged with the government. FoodBank was soon formally recognised as the national food banking network, and contracted with the departments of Social Development and Agriculture with each committing some financial support. The results speak for themselves and Gilbertson believes they have created a network which is unprecedented in Africa. 

At the end of 2009 Gilbertson stepped out of his position as MD to form the FoodBank Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that helps fund FoodBank primarily through striking BEE deals with corporates.

“I would argue the foundation is the most cost effective and least self interested BEE venture in the country. The FoodBank Foundation can buy equity stakes in quality SA companies, thus improving their BEE status without the need to interfere in their business, and future proceeds flow into funding FoodBank. The Foundation is run by volunteers, prominent South Africans who earn nothing out of it, yet it deals directly and cost effectively with the problem of a country with 11 million hungry mouths to feed.”

In addition to its basic food rescue service, in true Gilbertson style FoodBank is looking at a number of projects to bring business thinking to bear on the challenge of making an NGO more sustainable. “We’re collaborating with a multinational company. We’ll form a for-profit company owned by a trust. Our partner will provide the company with funding in the form of a grant and an interest free loan. The company will use this to buy trucks and hire drivers. FoodBank will outsource part of its food transportation logistics to this new company, which will also undertake commercial trucking operations. The drivers will be the beneficiaries of the trust which owns the trucking company. The effect will be to create immediate jobs for the drivers while turning them into entrepreneurs who, over a period of years, will be able to buy the trucks they drive.”

This is just one of many ideas. “I could give you six other examples of these enterprise development opportunities in the FoodBank environment,” says Gilbertson, who adds that the opportunities for people who want to make a difference by ploughing their business expertise back into a good cause are immense.

And he should know. Despite his post-MBA aspirations to “change the world”, Gilbertson is reluctant to be placed in the limelight – but in one corner of the world he and his wife are certainly helping to change lives for the better – one mouthful at a time.

 

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